There is a huge range of breeders out there, from the truly great to the truly abysmal. A great breeder will breed only for the betterment of the breed, and love of the breed. They will be well-versed in the kinds of issues their breed could suffer from, and will work to eliminate or minimize that problem in their animals. Great breeders feed great foods, and vaccinate and deworm. Great breeders will carefully screen you to be sure you will be a good home for their puppy. Hint: anyone who has three pens in the dirt in their backyard, filled with different breeds of puppies, is not a breeder, not even a substandard one. But they will call themselves breeders exactly the same way people with a row of ribbons on their wall and champion lineages will. So beware.
It is no secret that there is a certain tension between breeders and veterinarians. There are lots of reasons for this, but from the veterinary side of the fence, here’s the scoop. Breeders are not veterinarians. Veterinarians are doctors. They go to school for about 8 years and at a typical cost of about $100,000 to become doctors. There’s a lot of medical knowledge you must master before you can graduate. It bears noting also that it is far more difficult to get into Vet School than Med School. You must be absolutely stellar, because at (for instance) University of Florida, there are about 4000 applicants for only 80 spots per year.
However, there are many breeders out there who consider themselves more of an expert in their dogs’ health than a mere veterinarian. We have gotten to look at lots of packets that breeders send home with new owners, stipulating what foods they must feed, what drugs the pet must never ingest, etc. I have even seen one recently that stated that Labrador Retrievers must never be bathed as it will make them more prone to skin allergies. Hoo, boy. This is the reading material that makes for some slightly awkward conversations with new owners. We don’t want to bash your breeder. But we have a duty to educate you on what information in that packet is real, and what is imaginary.
Here’s the deal: breeders (and here I am talking about Real Breeders, Real Breeders are focused on one breed only, have champion animals, and would far rather keep that puppy rather than sell it to the wrong home), are experts in their breed. They will know what kinds of issues their dogs may have. But a breeder should not dictate your puppy’s future diet or veterinary care (or forbid bathing). Great breeders want you to feed a high-quality food, but they should not really care which one you eventually choose.
There actually are a few breeds that have select drug sensitivities. But these are very few and far between, and—surprise!—your veterinarian already knows about breed-specific sensitivities. Remember that your veterinarian has probably treated your breed before, once or twice or twenty thousand times. No matter how much your breeder insists that your puppy will curl up and die if fed anything other than Purina ONE, this is simply not the case. And Purina ONE is crap.*
Some breeders, of course, think that 8 years of school and however many years of practice is worthless in comparison to their vast accumulations of knowledge. But please, take their stipulations with a grain of salt. No matter what you signed, they cannot come to your house and force you to feed their chosen food. That is actually not legal. If your veterinarian suggests that there are higher-quality foods out there that might be better for your puppy, listen.
If this seems a bit rant-y and mean-spirited, try for a second to put yourself in our shoes. Every day, we strive to provide the best possible advice on your pet’s care and nutrition. We want your pet to live long and prosper! We want you to be happy with the care we provide. We love to see happy, healthy cats and dogs. So every day, when we find ourselves up against something misleading or just plain wrong that your breeder, groomer, local PetSmart cashier, or best friend swore to you is the gospel, it can be wearing. Anything crazy that begins, “My breeder told me…” does create some negative connotations.
So let me balance this with an example of a phenomenal breeder. We have a couple who are wonderful clients, and who recently lost their older dog to cancer. After a brief period of mourning, they started scouting for breeders who specialized in their favorite breed. They turned up a breeder, who had puppies almost ready for sale, and started a conversation with him. The breeder ended up shipping them a puppy, once the puppy was of age. And then the trouble started.
The puppy was very smart—but willful. They easily trained him to sit, and stay (remember, this puppy was only about 8 weeks old!). They hired trainers, tried behaviorists. They did everything right. But their puppy was an unpredictable biter. He actually hurt his owners, and they never saw the attacks coming. Finally, after a lot of soul-searching and emotional distress, they contacted the breeder, to get his ideas. He immediately suggested that he take back the puppy, as it was not a good fit for the couple, and find another puppy with a more suitable personality. The original puppy will not be re-homed, but will live out his days on the property of the breeder. He will not be bred.
As sad as this story is for everyone concerned, it highlights what makes a wonderful breeder, in addition to careful attention to his dogs’ genetic makeup. He wants what’s best for his adoptive families and for his dogs. He acknowledges that some dogs are born with emotional and developmental disturbances, just as humans are. And he has a plan for when adoptions fail, one that doesn’t involve laying blame.
The happy ending is: the couple is now waiting for their next puppy to be ready for adoption. The rest of the happy ending is hypothetical, but no less important: the puppy is back living happily at the breeder’s farm. He is being well cared for and will not go the sad route he could have taken in life. Dogs with intractable behavioral problems are dogs that get abused, neglected, shuttled between shelters, and eventually euthanized.
So next time you are in the market for a breeder for that special puppy, please bear in mind that all breeders are not created equal. Look for breeders who produce only a couple of litters per year, and can talk knowledgeably about WHY they bred that specific male and female, what characteristics they were looking for. A great breeder will interview you as though you were applying to a very selective college. A great breeder will recommend that your puppy visit the veterinarian right away, not scare you away from visiting. Yes, you will spend a little more on a puppy through a great breeder. But you will also have a lifetime ally, who should be able to help you make good decisions for your puppy’s care.
*Quick nutritional guideline: read pet food labels. When you get to corn, put it back on the shelf. Corn is just a cheap filler.